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Providing STEM opportunities to Latinos and African-Americans in US Communities in the Goal of Reducing the Achievement, Wealth and Skills Gaps

Iris Gardner

Iris Gardner has a background in higher education and tech and is dedicated to creating an equal playing field for underrepresented communities in each space. Iris was previously member of the Student Outreach team at Google where she managed the Freshmen Engineering Practicum internship program, which is geared towards underrepresented students in CS. Iris also worked in the Admissions Office of her alma mater, Pomona College, ushering in a new generation of Sagehens! In her second year at Pomona, she dove into the career development space and helped launch the inaugural year of Pomona’s $10M campaign for paid summer internships. Now in its third year, the program funds 85% more students than it did in its first summer. Iris has a BA in Sociology and Politics from Pomona College and is originally from Denver, CO.

Q: Tell us about CODE2040. What were the reasons and goals that spurred its creation?

Gardner: Launched in 2012, CODE2040 is a nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the skills gap and opportunity divide in engineering and technology in the United States. STEM jobs are the fastest-growing category of jobs in the United States, and 70% of those jobs involve computing. But at the current rate we are graduating computer scientists, there will be 1MM software jobs unfilled by 2020, threatening our country's ability to remain competitive. By the year 2040 the US will be majority-minority with 42% being Black or Latino/a, yet they only make up about 9% of the tech workforce. CODE2040 provides opportunities, networks, and support for top minority engineering talent to ensure their leadership in the innovation economy to help counteract these daunting statistics.

Q: What are your principal projects and initiatives? How do they impact underrepresented minorities in tech?

Gardner: CODE2040's flagsip program is a summer Fellows Program that places high performing Black and Latino/a software engineering students in internships with top tech companies and provides them with mentorship, leadership training, and network development. This program provides talented technologists with the resources to start their own companies and launch a successful career in the innovation economy. In our pilot class we had 5 Fellows, we grew to 18 in 2013 and will double our 2014 class.
After two cycles of applications we realized that applicants to our program were fantastic, however they lacked the resources necessary to best prepare for not only our process, but in any technical internship process. Our mission is to create equity and our experience was telling us that we had to add to our programming in order to create equity. Equipped with the right information we would increase the number of qualified applicants to our program - and all tech internships.
With additional input from our company partners we built the CODE2040 Applicant Toolkit. The Toolkit provides students with a repository of resources on how to be a standout applicant for a tech internship. Applicants now have one place to go to when they ask themselves questions like: What should I put on my resume? What experience are companies look for? and How do I practice for a technical interview? We've made the technical internship application process more transparent so that applicants know what's expected of them and how to present it in their materials.

Q: What challenges are facing CODE2040 and how do you plan to address them?

Gardner: When you look at the main issue we’re solving for, creating opportunities for underrepresented groups to be successful in the innovation economy, there are a myriad of ways that we can do that. Choosing where to start and where to add new programming is something we find ourselves evaluating on a consistent basis. I think this is a good problem to have because allows us to get creative with our new programs, like the Applicant Toolkit. With this we've been able to gather very important information in one place and lower the barrier for entry into the tech world. As we look to the future we can keep solving for these issues and expand our reach. It's an exciting prospect!

Q: What is CODE2040's greatest success?

Gardner: CODE2040 is only as great as our Fellows and they are, to be frank, some of the most impressive students I've been able to work with! They code on mission critical projects at companies like Jawbone, Etsy and Facebook from backend to frontend, on iOS and Android and push code that makes their companies move faster and become more profitable. Our partner companies are constantly impressed with how our Fellows contribute to their teams and 90% of our 2013 class got return offers from their internships.
CODE2040 can't get all the credit though, these students come to us with a passion for technology, a foundation in coding and an enthusiasm to be leaders - all things we look at in the application process - and we give them the extra exposure to the tech world they need to solidify their career goals and we give them the resources to accomplish them.

Q: What resources give and advices do you offer African-American and Latino students in achieving their academic and career goals?

Gardner: I've spent most of my career working with students and it still shocks me when a student says to me something along the lines of, "I'm not good enough", when all I can see is their greatness. Social scientists call this impostor syndrome and there isn't a magic bullet that will give you the confidence to say, "I can do anything" but there is one thing that I recommend that can help you build your confidence...
...Find a mentor! A mentor is someone who is honest enough to tell you when you're going the wrong direction, but also willing to tell you that you are awesome when you have setbacks. Find a mentor who can guide you and be a sounding board for your ideas, no matter how crazy they are or how hard they may be to create. Once you find this honest and compassionate person - meet with them often, tell them your goals and make a plan together to get you where you'd like to be. Whether it's starting your own company or landing a position at your dream company, having the help of a mentor can get you there a lot faster than on your own.

Q: Your website cites: "We need Blacks and Latinos to enter the tech workforce at a greater rate, and to stay and succeed there as engineers, technologists, thought leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs. It's economics and social justice" Can you elaborate on that statement?

Gardner: It's no secret that engineers earn a high salary at an average of $77K a year but the fastest growing communities - Blacks and Latino/as - are not equally represented in the tech field. The average Black or Latino/a household earns nearly 3x less than the average person in technology. CODE2040 is working to provide the exposure to networks and resources in the innovation economy for underrepresented minorities so that they attain all types of roles in the innovation economy, especially as leaders. This will start to break the economic cycle.

Q: What are the critical steps educational policymakers should undertake to bridge the scientific and technological gap in America and to increase the number of African-Americans and Latinos in STEM especially in light of the PISA 2012 test results released recently?

Gardner: The importance of STEM education is currently on the national stage and people are recognizing that we have to act sooner rather than later. With the recent CSEdWeek (Dec 9-13th), the Hour of Code, and other national initiatives we are able to make incremental strides towards closing the gap.
The results of PISA highlight a big reason why CODE2040 and other organizations have to keep doing the work we do - there is a lack of access to education and resources to compete on both a national and international scale. The education debate has many facets but this study brings to light that at the end of the day we still have a long way to go until our education system is up to par. The article also mentions poverty and other social factors that contribute to the issue, and it is very important that we recognize and find solutions for those as well. There isn't one answer to creating equity but with many organizations, the government, and individuals attacking the issues from all sides, equity (and progress) is possible.

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)